By Rania Zanoun
Damascus, Jul 1 (efe-epa).- From behind the counter, butcher Ali Gneid watches as his customers scan the prohibitive prices of ribs and beef cuts before striking them off their shopping lists.
He is all too familiar with the difficulties that those who approach his stall at the Bab Srija market in the heart of Damascus face.
“I’m a butcher and I can’t even take meat home,” the 50-year-old says.
“Prison would be better than this — at least there’s food there.”
Syria has been a theater of war for nine years. The bloody civil conflict erupted during the widespread protests across the region, popularly known as the Arab Spring, and at one point looked likely to topple the government of strongman president Bashar Al-Assad.
It has been brutal: more than 400,000 people have died, according to the UN. Assad has since regained power in the vast majority of the country.
Only Idlib province in northwest Syrian remains in the hands of armed opposition forces, which nowadays is an ideological patchwork of groups with a heavy jihadist presence.
While the notion of a final battle to wrest control of Idlib seems to be close, the suffering in Syria looks to be far from over.
The UN estimated that 83 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line, earning less than $100 a month, while the World Food Programme says that food prices have risen 209 percent compared to last year.
Gneid says that this rise, which affects meat in particular, has seen costs inflate from 5,000 Syrian pounds (about $9.7) per kilo to 20,000 Syrian pounds ($39). He attributes it to a thriving blackmarket and international sanctions.
The Syrian government has firmly laid the blame for inflation on sanctions imposed by the United States, which this month approved a raft of new restrictions as part of the so-called Caesar Act, which looks to limit Assad’s ability to preside over the rebuilding of Syria.
At the market, Kamla, 60, who scrapes by on a pension of around $97, moves from stall to stall looking for a bottle of oil.
“Prices are exorbitant today,” says the woman from Al Sabinah, in southwest Damascus.
One of the few people at the market willing to talk to journalists, she says it has been over a year since she ate meat.
Food stall owner Izzat al Shaghuri, 52, tells Efe that the blame for the price hike does not lie with them. “There is no stability in the prices,” he says, adding that it was linked to the exchange rate.
“Many Syrians are looking for ways to cook without oil,” he adds.
The WFP estimated that 9.3 million of 17 million Syrians face the prospect of food insecurity, according to the agency’s Syria communications officer Jessica Lawson, who added that prices were higher than they have ever been since the conflict broke out in 2011.
She tells Efe that this was down to a “combination of factors” including the civil war itself, the stagnating economy, the economic crisis in neighboring Lebanon and the Covid-19 lockdown.
According to WFP figures, “even basic foods are becoming beyond the reach of many.”